Holy Communion

Musical explorations of the best of all possible worlds

Richard Wagner
Royal Opera House, until December 18

Leonard Bernstein
Menier Chocolate Factory, until February 22

Review from the Times Literary Supplement, 13 December 2013

Wer ist der Gral?", asks Wagner's Parsifal, shortly after recovering from a fainting fit. Having only just learned his own name, that the woman who gave it to him has died, and now that something called "the Grail" will give him food and drink (provided he is pure), he is entitled to a certain amount of confusion. The form of the question - "who", not "what" - is always taken as an expression of the naivety of Wagner's most naive hero. But it has always struck me as odd that Gurnemanz, the wisest and most trustworthy of the Grail's servants, fails to correct him on this point: "Das sagt sich nicht".

In the Royal Opera's new and, for fans of bicentennial celebrations, long-awaited production of Wagner's final opera, Parsifal's question - no less than Gurnemanz's obfuscatory answer - is more than usually significant. The Grail, it turns out, is a young boy, held in captivity by the brotherhood and brought out periodically from an opaque glass box to have his side pierced by a scalpel, in a position analogous to the Christ's wound. Naked but for a loin cloth, the grail-boy is then carried among the faithful who, having used similar scalpels to cut stigmata wounds in the palms of their hands, mingle their own blood with that of the boy. It's not the image of the mysterious relic and vessel of blood of Christ that most of us have in mind, but as a reflection of the brotherhood's fetishization of the blood of Christ, the idea has a shocking but authentically Wagnerian logic to it.

Very few staged Parsifals have ever really satisfied my idealized, naturalized picture of the opera as a work which makes perfect, beautiful sense, and which is capable of forming the core of a coherent, ethical picture of the world. But Stephen Langridge and Antonio Pappano's new production for the Royal Opera is the first that made me question my understanding of the work altogether. Is the piece simply too weird in its obsessions (its misogyny, its eroticization of the idea of atonement and de-eroticization of the idea of love), too nasty in its misanthropy and ultimately too schoolboyish in its two-dimensional characterizations, the elements of a powerful but overly simplistic moral-aesthetic philosophical system?

Some of this response comes down to Pappano's handling of the piece, which in parts - the Act One and Three preludes, the transformation music of Act One - is superlative. Combined with some astonishingly controlled and expressive playing by the orchestra, as ever completely responsive to the wishes of their music director, the music reached moments of otherworldly, hypnotic beauty. Put together, though, the playing comes across as far too choppy. The sense of symphonic process - crucial if the work is to retain its full gravity - is sacrificed in favour of immediate contrasts in emotion and texture.

The leitmotifs seem to jump out at one eagerly - look out, here comes Parsifal, here comes Kundry! - rather than emerging, as they should, as expressions of the music's inner thematic logic. The result is that both the music and drama feel unusually volatile, and strangely fragile in their foundations.

The same is true of Stephen Langridge's staging which, thanks to Alison Chitty's elegantly conceived design, gives the illusion of being crisp and clearly thought through but which, as things progress, begins to fall apart at the seams. This is a result of an entirely misplaced sense that things must keep moving on stage (if ever there was an opera where you can afford to let your cast stay where they are, it's this one), and of some equally misplaced directorial ideas. Act Two, in particular, is a mess; the flower maidens are singularly unprepossessing in their garish nightclub gladrags, and too many details are left dangling, such as the identification of four of the brotherhood as terrorist martyrs at the end of Act One, or Parsifal's blinding of himself at the end of Act Two. Chitty's central cube, which houses first Amfortas's sick bed, then the Grail, then Kundry's love nest, is also overworked, used to display flashed tableaux which recreate aspects of the narrative, such as Amfortas's seduction by Kundry, or Klingsor's self-castration. Progressively, the flood of unwonted details hijacks Wagner's carefully articulated dramatic arc.

This notwithstanding, the underlying idea behind Langridge's treatment of the drama is undeniably a strong one. The brotherhood are a sinister, secretive closed society, whose mistaken loyalty to Titurel's vision of the Grail as a literal re-enactment of the wounds of Christ has led to a closeted world in which sexual relations have been replaced by a kind of ritualized child abuse. Their final redemption by Parsifal takes the form of his washing away the wound rituals and replacing them with a virtual conception of the Grail as pure compassion. When he opens the central cube for the last time, the boy has vanished. Amfortas is released from the hellish duties enforced on him by his bullying father and exits with Kundry, the two reunited as lovers. Somewhat in the same manner, Gurnemanz is left to tend the corpse of Titurel.

The vocal performances are also mixed, Simon O'Neill's sure command of Parsifal's role hampered by his poor acting while Angela Denoke's sinewy characterization of Kundry begins to fall apart just as the role requires the voice to be at its strongest. The real triumphs of the evening are Gerald Finley's Amfortas and René Pape's Gurnemanz, both rock solid, beautifully paced and nobly acted. Amfortas's spiritual desperation in the second scene of Act One is among the most moving things I have witnessed on any operatic stage. Given the central motivational role played by our, and Parsifal's, compassionate identification with the character, it goes a long way towards rescuing the entire show. But Pape's Gurnemanz is powerful, noble and immensely compassionate himself: how do we square this with his unquestioned, continuing support for a regime that is rotten at its heart?

It is a nice though perhaps unintended touch that in the little stretch of garden which the Grail community must till, in the shamefully fallen state in which they find themselves in Act Three, the one fertile patch is precisely where the swan shot by Parsifal in Act One lies buried. Perhaps Parsifal's hunter-gatherer bent is his redeeming feature after all. Certainly, Langridge's reading of the opera as an imperative to set aside all crypto-mythological pursuits in favour of getting on with the practicalities of harmonious living bears striking parallels with the famous conclusion reached by another of Western civilization's most prized holy fools, Voltaire's Candide. Langridge's Parsifal simply strides off at the end, leaving his compassionate miracle to work its mundane magic by itself. But had he left his newly acquired flock with an instruction, it might well have been something along the lines of "il faut cultiver notre jardin".

Leonard Bernstein's operetta Candide!, like Parsifal, is not an easy work to stage successfully. A new production at the Menier Chocolate Factory, directed and slightly reworked by Matthew White, comes close to overcoming its many obstacles, however. Taken as a highoctane fairground ride of bravura ensemble acting and playing, and featuring some very creditable singing, it is also the perfect comic antidote to the excesses of the Royal Opera's Parsifal.

Presented as the creation of a medieval-style travelling troupe, with the action unfolding in a central rectangle but continually spilling up the aisles and along the galleries (and frequently co-opting unsuspecting members of the audience into the fray), the operetta rolls along at a tremendous lick, the more formal musical numbers emerging as natural and necessary pauses for breath. That said, many of the songs - particularly Scarlett Strallen's "Glitter and Be Gay", in which her coloratura roulades find a hilarious visual corollary in Cunégonde's pulling strings of pearls and diamonds from an overhead chandelier - are show-stopping in their own right. The sole problem in this otherwise flawlessly paced riot of musico-theatrical enchantment relates to the piece itself, and the way in which the El Dorado sequence is over before the audience has a chance to realize why Candide has no choice but to leave it behind. Just as Wagner suggested in his depiction of the Grail kingdom, the best of all possible worlds is no better than the worst when it comes to the basic need to live one's own life.

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